Thursday, March 08, 2007

The depression of the penguins

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to post, but I think I broke my liver in Africa. It's been in a sling since I got home. On top of the jetlag, the after-effects of the No Jetlag pills (bloody herbal crap - don't go near it!), sleeplessness and the chesty bug I caught from our tour guide, I've been largely useless for the past week. Well, more useless than usual, anyway. Half-hearted hacks are never much use at the best of times. Nevertheless it might be a good idea to get a cup of tea, or possibly even a packed lunch. It's another long 'un.

The finale to the trip was five nights in Cape Town:

Everything else aside, the people we met there were just outstanding. We stayed with a lovely couple named Felicity and Anton. They were friends of Oom Jaco’s, but when they offered to let us stay in the cottage on their farm, they didn’t know us from a bar of soap. They made us feel very welcome, putting on dinner for us when we were tired from traveling, a braai (barbecue) during the week and even filling the cottage fridge so we could make breakfast and sandwiches. I’ve never met such welcoming, generous and friendly people as I have on this holiday.

Cape Town must be the original city of contrasts. A bit of a cliché, I know, but it is difficult to reconcile for an Australian. The city is home to some of the most wretched shanty towns I’ve seen anywhere in the country: scraps of rusted tin, splinters of warped timber and torn plastic sheeting are woven into huts no bigger than my potting shed. They are crowded together by the hundred in townships on main roads. In some of the luckier ones, there are blue-for-boys-pink-for-girls amenities blocks. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph them in case the inhabitants saw me and thought I was treating them like zoo exhibits. And to tell the truth, I didn’t want to because they were so sad looking. Supposedly, the government promised to give everyone a proper house within something like five years, but it’s been 15 years and they’ve only built about 10 or 20 percent of what they promised.

Less than half an hour’s drive away, there are huge houses on manicured blocks that are sheltered from the road by tall electrified fences. One house was supposed to be a replica of Gatsby’s mansion in the film – just the same, ja, but bigger. If you could still buy such things, I’m sure the books in that library would have had uncut pages, just like Gatsby’s.

It's just one of those things. The Gatsby people will never understand why everyone hates them and and the others will never understand why the Gatsby people don't understand. Anton told us an awful story about Cape Town crime. An Indian guy he met tells this story to anyone who will listen. Once upon a time, an Indian man wanted to buy his daughter a nice sports car for her birthday. One day, he lost his mind and asked a gangster type to find one for him. A red MX-6, please, he said. No problem, said Mr Gangster. Mr Indian Guy didn't hear from Mr Gangster again for some time and might even have forgotten about the deal. A red MX-6 came up through legitimate means, so be bought it for his daughter, who was in her early 20s. Shortly afterwards, Mr Gangster called. "I've got that red MX-6 for you," he said. And he had. Mr Indian Guy's daughter was dead in a gutter - shot in the head by carjackers because one of Mr Gangster's people had killed her for her car. Mr Indian Guy is still in counselling. As one would be.

A lot of people in Cape Town have servants, but that’s the same all over South Africa. Someone asked me whether Australians had servants. When I said that some people might have a cleaner for a few hours a fortnight, or a man who mowed the lawn, but that was about as far as it went, she said, “Ohhh. South Africans would never survive in Australia.”

Cape Town’s Victoria and Albert Waterfront is also a sharp contrast to the shacks of the poor. It’s a working harbour and very picturesque, but they’ve taken advantage of that to fill it with restaurants and sniffy, expensive shops. It looks a bit like Circular Quay in Sydney and it feels like a tourist trap, despite the pretty buildings.

A swingbridge connects the wharfs and opens for boats.

The restuarants are excellent and travellers and locals alike throng there. But the only black faces seemed to belong to the staff in the restaurants and shops and the buskers who played jazz and Afropop to add authentic African atmosphere.

I think my guilt gland must be overactive. It certainly got a workout on the V&A Waterfront.

It is also the place to get the ferry to Robben Island. Robben Island is the ultimate in guilt travel, possibly even more so than Auschwitz. No-one expects you to come back from Poland with a T-shirt that says, “My mate went to Auschwitz and all she bought me was this crappy T-shirt”, but you can’t go to Cape Town without people saying, “Did you see Mandela’s cell?” I don’t think anyone really wants to go to Robben Island. You just have to go, to prove that you don’t agree with apartheid and you aren’t a nasty, evil racist. Instead, I’m a nasty, evil cynic.

So here’s Mandela’s cell.

But truly, even the penguins on Robben Island look depressed. There weren’t any fricken happy feet there.

See? Sad feet.

We had two guides during our guilt trip. The bus guide was a young man who said he was doing the job to pay for his university education and because he was a proud South African (in that order). He gave us a very stern and rambling lecture on politics as we were whisked past anything interesting (a shipwreck, the lepers’ cemetery) and left for an age to contemplate the dull bits (the limestone quarry, a random bit of road near the gaol). We weren’t allowed out of the bus, either, except to go into the gaol and follow a boardwalk to the colony of emo penguins.

The gaol guide was a former political prisoner. For some reason, this man and a number of other ex-political prisoners returned after apartheid finished and they now live on the island and work as guides in the gaol. He said it was an act of reconciliation, but I don’t buy it. If it were me, I’d want to get the hell out of the place. I pondered it long and hard and came to the uncharitable conclusion that they stayed on to be martyrs. Plus, where else could they talk three times a day about having been heroes of democracy? (See previous comment re unflattering cynicism.) Robben Island gets more visitors every year than Kruger, so the guilt trip must be working well. (Ditto.)

Guilt trips and townships aside, Cape Town is a very beautiful place. It’s all cloud-shrouded mountains and steep cliffs staggering down to the sea. Table Mountain rears over the city, pinning it to the waterline.

Next to Table Mountain is Lion’s Head, a tall, pointed mountain that (allegedly) looks like a crouching lion with a full mane if you see it from the right angle.

This isn't the right angle. But that's a nice cloud.

Instead of hiring a car, we had a tour guide named Carl to show us around town. This was both a boon and an annoyance. He took us to places that, on our own, we would either have missed or got lost trying to find. On the down side, he was an ex-pat German, so we were running on Germanic time. He also had a thing about control. He always had to be in it. I kept expecting him to click his heels and yell, “Raus! Raus! Schnell! Schnell!” to get us back in the car when we were dawdling. He packed in so many things in our four days that by the time we left, I was exhausted. He also drove like a madman. Indicators? Double no overtaking lines? They're for sissies! Then there was the small matter of him wearing a cravat to dinner one night. I didn’t think men still wore cravats, but Carl had one stashed in the car, I suppose for when he couldn’t change for dinner. We’d been hiking up rather steep steps in the heat all afternoon and we were looking a little wilted, so he managed to look far more dapper than we did. Carl one, Redcap and Bloke zero.

We got our guilt trip out of the way on the first day and then wandered about the waterfront. I was pleased to see a Zulu basket similar to one I bought in Polokwane in one of the sniffy shops for more than double the price I’d paid. (Bargain Zulu baskets are like free booze – they’re just sweeter.) After lunch, we did the sight-seeing thing, with Carl driving us up to Signal Hill to look out over the town and see a suburb where the houses were built below road level, into the cliffs.

In the early evening, we went sea kayaking. For some reason, Carl couldn’t pronounce “kayaking” and said “carjacking” instead. We thought he was joking when he said, “And this evening you are going carjacking.” Huh? Isn’t that illegal?

We both like kayaking and we’ve been out a few times at home. Garden Island, in Adelaide’s Port River, has a 10,000-year-old mangrove forest, a ships’ graveyard and a resident pod of dolphins that makes it a terrific spot for paddling. Yes, this is same the same loser who made whimpery please-don’t-drown-me noises in the mokoro on the delta. A sea kayak is much more stable than a mokoro and I’m in control, so oddly enough, the water phobia doesn’t take hold.

We struck out from the beach, paddling hard through the surf, until we were a few hundred metres off shore. The view of Table Bay from just above the waterline was incredible, especially as the sun went down and set fire to the peak of Lion’s Head.

Seals swam between us and our guide, flipping their tails at us. Something bobbed up about 30m away that could have been seal, dolphin or sunfish, but I only saw it out of the corner of my eye. Sunfish are bizarre creatures. They’re round and up to a metre across, but instead of swimming upright, they bask on their sides close to the surface with a single thick fin breaking the waterline. That fin looks like the dorsal fin of a shark or a dolphin and it scares six months’ growth out of some people. The guide told us that later in the year, they often get southern wright whales in the bay as well as the usual inhabitants. This, apparently, also scares the living whatsits out of less intrepid paddlers.

I don’t have any photos of the kayaking trip, I’m afraid. I took the camera with me, but didn’t bother to take it out of the waterproof bag on the prow. It just seemed too hard and my hands were salty anyway.

The next day, Wednesday, we were back on the water again, this time in False Bay off Simon’s Town, about 45 minutes from Cape Town. The boat was a bit bigger this time and we were hunting great whites. Big 'uns.

False Bay is the only place in the world where great whites do this:

I stole this photo from the Air Jaws people. Sorry.

At certain times of the year, they fly out of the water and snatch seals in mid-air. No-one knows exactly why they do it there and nowhere else, but they think it has something to do with the way the sea floor drops off sharply from Seal Island.

When we climbed into the boat, a misty sea fog was hanging over the mountains. False Bay was chill and ominous. They could have filmed The Shipping News there. The skipper was a tall, good-looking Afrikaaner with curly, dark hair. His first mate was handsome too, with skin the colour of milky coffee. His top four teeth had been knocked out, giving him a larrikin grin. They both wore knee-high rubber boots, but I couldn't quite work out why since there seemed to be no need to get wet.

The boat cut through choppy waves, heading for the island. We passed fishing boats, a naval base and a monochrome lighthouse on a rock in the sea. You wouldn’t have guessed, but Seal Island was pretty much covered in seals.

Oh, and a fair stack of seal shite, too.

Brown shearwaters and gulls wheeled overhead. We circled the island, peering at the seals and waiting for the smell to hit us. The skipper pointed out the bodies of a couple of seal pups floating limply in the water. They had been washed off the rocks at high tide, he explained.

I didn’t think this boded well for our expedition, if there were perfectly good floating corpses that weren’t being eaten. After all, all we had was a fake seal made from what looked like carpet underlay to attract the big boys.

Hmm, not that convincing...

We pulled up and dropped anchor and the mate threw the fake seal overboard. A tuna head on a rope bobbed near the fake seal. I worked out why they were wearing the boots when the skipper dropped some chunks of fish into a large plastic tub, added seawater and jumped in. Instant chum. The mate sat on one of the engines, smoking through the gap in his teeth and tipping buckets of bloody water into the sea.

We waited, watching as fishing parties of seals set out from the island. They would leave in gangs of eight or 10, usually three groups at a time. They would zig-zag in and out of the water, diving under and leaping over each other, to throw off the sharks, A group of a few dozen seals bobbed in the water just off the island, plunging under the waves as they broke. They didn’t seem to be doing anything in particular, just playing. I mean, really, what if you were a seal who couldn't swim? I guess you'd be one of those sad, cracked little corpses that had washed off the rocks.

Anyway, I’m sure you can guess where this story is going. We sat there all morning, but nothing the least bit toothy-vicious leapt out of the water. We were there too early in the year, curse it. The sharks only breach between April and November, when there aren’t so many fish around and they become more interested in seal sushi. Ford knows why, when there's no wasabi and soy.

The longer we sat there, the more frustrated the skipper became. I don’t think he’d ever failed to produce sharks before. If they didn’t jump, at least they swam around the boat and looked vicious. As he chummed blood, I could hear him muttering, “Come on, sharky, give us a show!”

At one stage he got very excited and shouted, “Shark! SharksharksharkSHARK!” A pale mirage surfaced near the boat, but it was only a little one – not more than a couple of metres long – and it vanished under the keel a few seconds later.

We motored back into shore, grouchy and squinting from the glare off the water. We climbed off the boat and ate deplorable fish and chips at a waterfront restaurant with Carl and his partner and then drove back to Cape Town via another penguin colony at Boulders Beach. Much happier feet there.

Next stop after the happy penguins was the Cape of Good Hope. I had wanted to stand on the cape itself and do a bit of a "I'm the farking queen of the world" routine, but Carl had other ideas. The Cape is the southern-most point of Africa and it’s in its own national park. As we drove into the park, Bloke said, “Look - zebras!” Sure enough, two zebras were grazing near the road. Even though I practically plastered myself to the window, we didn’t stop.

And rather than going to the Cape itself, we went to Cape Point, a mountain that was topped by a lighthouse overlooking the Cape. It was rather warm and there were a lot of steps, but the view from the top was spectacular. A rainstorm was blowing in as we gave ourselves vertigo by leaning over to look down the cliffs. But I still would rather have walked down to the real Cape, damnit.

That's it. Cape of Good Hope. Schnell!

There was also a lot of graffiti on Cape Point. Generations of people have scratched, painted and written their names on the lighthouse, the rocks and the signpost that points to everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to the North Pole. I even caught some Japanese tourists with an indelible marker, adding to the damage. They just giggled when I gave them a look that would usually strip paint. I know Japanese giggle when they're uncomfortable, but to tell the truth, I don't give a rat's arse. (And if you don't have a rat's arse to give, e-mail me. I'll send you one. You never know when you might need one.) Perhaps they just don’t have Hard Stares in Japan.

The next morning (Thursday) we went to a wine region outside Cape Town called Stellenbosch. The old section of the town of Stellenbosch was very pretty, with whitewashed, thatch-roofed buildings dating back to the 1700s.

One of the shops we visited was called Oom Samie se Winkel, which I think translates as Oom Samie’s Shop. (A “drankwinkel” is a boozer, which is rather apt, I think. It sounds like it should be a word for drunk. I also like the Afrikaans word for hungover – “babalas”. Not quite onamatoepic, but it does sound like what it means.) Oom Samie’s had everything in it. It was half shop and half museum, so there was dried fish, dry wors and biltong jostling for space with Nazi election posters, mounted leopard skins and vintage clothes.

For some reason, South Africans call vineyards and wineries “wine farms”. It conjures up images of picking bottles of sauvignon blanc from trees, or digging merlot out of a nice wet clay soil. We visited Boschendal, a winery that Carl referred to as “a noble old wine farm”.

Blue mountains towered over the old whitewashed buildings and there were stretches of blue hydrangeas interspersed with fields of grapes. The tasting area, the Taphuis, was a cluster of white cast iron tables and chairs under oak trees. For R15 a head, a waiter would line up five quarter glasses of wine of your choice. The good ones were very, very good and the others were, well...

On our last day, we were supposed to take the cable car up to Table Mountain. Most of the week had been windy, but now the wind had died down, it was perfect weather for cable car-ing. Things didn’t look good from half-way up the road to the cable car station, though. There were cars parked a long way down. As a tour guide, Carl could use reserved parking at the top, but when we finally got there, it was to see a crocodile of hot, red, sweaty, grumpy, frustrated-looking tourists standing in the sun. There must have been at least a couple of hundred of them. We weren’t particularly keen to join them, especially when a carpark attendant told Carl that the wait would be at least an hour and a half. Both ways.

After some gentle prodding, we talked Carl into abandoning his plans and taking us to Kalk Bay instead. It's a gorgeous little seaside town with a small fishing fleet, arty shops and fantastic restaurants. One bar in particular would have been great in the evening: it had a Cuban theme and looked like it had a brilliant atmosphere. We walked up and down the esplanade, had a lazy lunch of kudu steak and Cajun yellowtail and wandered about the fish market, the breakwater and the wharfs.

The whole place had a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Everything was bright: the fishing boats were painted in reds, blues and greens. Tiny alleyways burst with colour. Men lounged around the bases of the lighthouses and children perched on the edges of the wharf, dangling skinny legs and fishing lines.

A couple of seals swam near the fish market wharf, waiting for the filleters to toss fish scraps to them.

The shops were full of the must eclectic collection of stuff I've ever seen. Vintage china jostled for space with crumbling books and carvings with curtains made from plastic bottle caps. And then there was this 1950s train sign:

That evening, Oom Jaco’s brother and sister-in-law, Boesman and Madeleine, took us out for pizza at a friend’s restaurant. Like Felicity and Anton, we had never met before, but they made it their business to show us the best of Cape Town hospitality. Boesman looked and sounded a little like Jaco and had the same wonderful, generous nature and wicked grin. He packed the boot of his car with beer, ice and red and white wine from the Swartland region where he and his family lived. I expressed some doubt that we’d need all of it, but I don’t think there was much of it left by the end of the evening. Actually, I think I was the chief offender...

White wine is often served with ice in South Africa because otherwise it just doesn’t stay cold enough. It makes it rather pleasant, actually, and tragically easy to drink. Red wine drinkers may want to close their ears and sing a little tune for a minute, but quite a lot of people also drink their red wine with ice because room temperature is lukewarm. I don’t like the taste of red, so I can’t see how adding ice could make it any worse.

The restaurant where we ate was run by an ex-pat Italian named Donato. It was only open on Tuesdays and Fridays and only to friends and friends of friends. I suspect it used to be his garage, but it had been fitted out with a bar and a big wood-fired oven. There were communal tables and dozens of baseball caps hanging from the ceiling. You could have anything you wanted so long as you happened to feel like the best pizza in the world. I’ve never had anything like it. No, Audrey, not even at Scoozi. It had chilli and hard-boiled egg and two types of sausage and mushroom and capsicum and tomato and olives and the base was thin and light and crisp. It was the best pizza in the world and I’m probably never going to get another one. Sob.

We left Africa the next day, with me nursing a hangover and garlic breath that could have felled an ox at 40 paces. Ah, the price for a really good night.

When Bloke first asked me if I wanted to go to South Africa, I said, “Oh God. I’d rather set my hair on fire.” I had always imagined a dry, open country full of bitey things, deprivation, misery and crime. Don’t I feel silly now? It was the most incredible place I’ve ever been and I’m already trying to work out how to get back again.

So, here endeth the final instalment of the African adventure. Back to my ordinary, dull old life. Damn it.

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At 10:07 am, March 08, 2007, Blogger Scorpy said...

~applause~...Bravo...Author....I loved this epic. Can you please go on holidays again so I have another great story to read? Truley amazing insite and the pictures were great...Thanks Red :)

At 11:15 am, March 08, 2007, Anonymous MikeFitz said...

Redcap, your posts are definitely top of my "come back and read 'em properly this week-end" list.

Even on a quick skim I learnt about geography, the natural environment, people, politics...

At 11:39 am, March 08, 2007, Blogger ilse said...


You've been to the country my Mother comes from, and reading your posts I'm filled with an odd sense of nostalgia for a place I've never seen, only heard about in small doses.

I would love to take my mother back there to see it-- she hasn't been back in more than 25 years. But like you (at the outset) I am uneasy about going-- carjacking, rapes, crime, poverty, misery...

Having read what you have to say makes me want to sternly put my foot down and tell that part of my brain to shoosh for a while.

Thank you for blogging this, redcap, it's something both really personal and yet completely unknown to me, so it's good to hear it's real and does exist, if that makes sense. It's not just a snippet of a life left decades ago.

At 11:56 am, March 08, 2007, Blogger Lonie Polony said...

A most enjoyable read. It's a pity you didn't go onto the Cape, maybe next time, ja? ;)

Carl's carjacking was very amusing. Might he have been confused with the j in German pronounced 'y' and thought he ought to pronounce 'y' as 'j' for English? (You'd never know from that highly technical suggestion that I did a double linguistics major.)

At 12:11 pm, March 08, 2007, Blogger redcap said...

Scorpy, damn, you're good for my ego! Thanks old sport :) I could do with another holiday. If only I could convince someone to give me a regular gig as a travel writer...

Mike, watch out for me on geography. It's likely to be misleading. I was never any good at that at school.

Ilse, obviously it's not all beer and skittles. There is the crime problem, but we were looked after so well that we just didn't see it. There are so many things that are wonderful about the country that you have to give it a go.

Lonie, at least now we know where it is and how not to get there ;)

At 12:31 am, March 10, 2007, Blogger londongirl said...

The Indian Guy story will stay with me - the definition of tragic I think.

I'm off to SA for a friend's wedding at Christmas and you've made me feel a LOT more positive about it. Not sure I'll be asking for Carl's number though...

And the ice in white wine is a great idea - I do it quite a lot already. Though clearly I realise that probably doesn't make me very classy.

At 3:36 am, March 10, 2007, Blogger Ariel said...

Wow, you've saved the best for last. Great post. Absolutely amazing place by the looks of it - the horrible irony of such a beautiful place being the site of one of the world's infamous 'evil regimes'. Love the descriptions, the local colour and the political observations.

You should contact Lonely Planet, Red, while Africa is still fresh enough in your mind for you to do a sample:


At 3:54 pm, March 10, 2007, Blogger redcap said...

LG, which part of SA? CApe Town? Definitely think about a side trip to Botswana, if you can spare the time. I just loved Kasane.

I know iced wine isn't very classy, but it tastes good, so I don't care. Wine snobs piss me off :)

Ariel, thank you! I'm actually getting ready to pitch stories to a newspaper, so fingers crossed there. I think travel writer might just be my perfect job. Or books writer. Or a combination of both...

At 8:47 pm, March 12, 2007, Blogger MadameBoffin said...

omg you take such fantastic photos. That Cape Town one is SPECTACULAR.

At 11:28 am, March 13, 2007, Blogger redcap said...

Thanks Boff :)

At 2:39 am, March 14, 2007, Blogger Mystic_childe said...

Thank you for sharing your adventure. Being an ex-Captonian now living in the UK your story made me laff, homesick and miss all the good things about 'home'. South Africa is an amazing country, filled with wonderful, warm, funny people. I will be going home when my contract finishes here, and will have an 'iced' white wine on your behalf.

At 12:23 pm, March 14, 2007, Blogger redcap said...

Mystic, glad it gave you a smile. Enjoy being home when you get back there :)

At 5:21 pm, March 17, 2007, Blogger Ms Smack said...


Fantastic trip, fantastic entry. Sorry about the indians daughter.. so sad...

i love penguins by the way, appreciate the photos.

Welcome home.

At 10:39 pm, March 26, 2007, Anonymous MikeFitz said...

I did come back and read your post properly - fascinating. But the loss of Indian Guy's daughter put a real lump in my throat.

At 5:16 pm, April 19, 2007, Anonymous Bron said...

Redcap, I'm an ex-South African who has been living in Sydney for the last 8 years. I now call this my home and for years now I have been saying that I don't miss South Africa and don't plan to return. Until your trip and your posts. Your writing is beautiful and your photos have been magnificent. You have reduced me to tears more than once and made me incredibly 'home-sick'. Its odd but I must say thank you for sending me on this journey. I'll be planning a trip 'home' in the not-too-distant future.


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